Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera and co-authors Charles Sadle and Dr. Erin Purcell have an article in the August 2019 issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering. In “Neuroethical considerations of high-density electrode arrays,” the authors state that “the development of implantable electrode arrays that broadly and seamlessly integrate with brain tissue will require innovation that responsibly considers clinically relevant neuroethical concerns.”
The full text is available online via Nature (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).
The search for a brain device capable of capturing recordings from thousands of neurons has been a primary goal of the government-sponsored BRAIN initiative. To succeed would require developing flexible materials for the electrodes, miniaturization of the electronics and fully wireless interaction. Yet this past summer, it was corporately funded Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink that stepped forward with announcements regarding their respective technological investment to access and read our human brains.
Elon Musk, the eccentric technology entrepreneur and CEO of Tesla and Space X, made a big announcement while at the California Academy of Sciences. This time it was not about commercial space travel or plans to revolutionize city driving. Instead Musk presented advances on a product under development at his company Neuralink. The product features a sophisticated neural implant which aims to record the activities of thousands of neurons in the brain, and write signals back into the brain to provide sensory feedback. Musk mentioned that this technology would be available to humans as early as next year.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is also funding brain research to develop a non-invasive wearable device that would allow people to type by simply imagining that they are talking. The company plans to demonstrate a prototype system by the end of the year.
These two corporate announcements raise important questions. Should we be concerned about the introduction of brain devices that have the capacity to read thousands of neurons and then send signals to our brains? The initial goal for both products is medical, to help paralyzed individuals use their thoughts to control a computer or smartphone, or in the case of Facebook to help those with disabling speech impairments. However, these products also are considered to be of interest to healthy individuals who might wish to “interact with today’s VR systems and tomorrow’s AR glasses.” Musk shared his vision to enable humans to “merge” with Artificial Intelligence (AI), enhancing them to reach superhuman intelligence levels.
Time will tell whether or not these grand visions, that currently veer into science fiction, will be matched by scientific progress. However, if they ultimately deliver on their promise, the products could change the lives of those affected by paralysis and other physical disabilities. Yet, if embraced by healthy individuals such technologies could radically transform what it means to be human. There are of course sound reasons to remain skeptical that they will be used. First off there are safety issues to be considered when implanting electrodes in the brain, including damage to the vasculature surrounding the implant as well as tissue response surrounding the device. And that is what is currently known about inserting brain-computer interfaces with only a couple of electrode channels. Consider what might happen with thousands of electrodes. There remain simply too many unknowns to endorse this intervention for human use in the next year or so. There also are salient issues regarding brain data collection, storage, and use, including concerns connected to privacy and ownership.
Beyond these concerns, we have to think about what happens when such developments are spearheaded by private companies. Privately funded development is at odds with the slow, careful approach to innovation that most medical developments rely upon, where human research subject regulations and safety measures are clear. It is the “move fast and break things” pace that energizes start-up companies and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The big swings at the heart of these entrepreneurial tech companies also bring considerable risks. When addressing sophisticated brain interfaces, the stakes are quite high. These products bring to mind scenarios from Black Mirror, a program that prompts a host of modern anxieties about technology. On one hand, the possibility of having a brain implant that allows hands-free device interaction seems exciting, but consider the level of information we then would be giving to these companies. It is one thing to track how individuals react to a social media post by clicking whether they “like” it or not, or by how many times it has been shared. It is another thing altogether to capture which parts of the brain are being activated without us having clicked anything. Can those companies be trusted with a direct window to our thoughts, especially when they have a questionable track record when it comes to transparency and accountability? Consider how long it took for Facebook to start addressing the use of customer’s personal information. It remains unclear just how much financial support Facebook is providing to its academic partners, or whether or not volunteers are aware of Facebook’s involvement in the funding-related research.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as academic partners to these enterprises may act as a moderating force on the tech industry, yet recent examples suggest that those kinds of checks and balances oftentimes fail. Thus, when we hear about developments by companies such as Facebook and Neuralink trying to access the thoughts in our brains, we need to hold on to a healthy skepticism and continue to pose important challenging questions.
Laura Cabrera, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Translational Neuroscience at Michigan State University.
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Michigan State University students Marissa Cortright and Emily Castillo presented a poster at the 9th annual Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences (Mid-SURE), held July 24 at Spartan Stadium. Their poster, “Perceived Invasiveness of Psychiatric Electroceutical Interventions as Treatment for Clinical Depression,” presented research from an ongoing NIH BRAIN Initiative grant related to the ethical concerns and attitudes toward the use of psychiatric electroceutical interventions (PEIs) in treatment resistant depression.
Cortright and Castillo, who are both majoring in neuroscience, have been working with MSU faculty mentors Laura Cabrera, Robyn Bluhm, Aaron McCright, and Eric Achytes. Their poster specifically addressed the invasiveness of multiple PEIs—electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), and adaptive brain implants (ABI)—based on the analysis of semi-structured interviews with Michigan-based psychiatrists. Cortright and Castillo concluded that the results of the interview analysis “suggest that while physical features are key for assessments of invasiveness, psychological, emotional, and lifestyle effects also play an important role.”
Cortright and Castillo both enjoyed the experience of presenting at Mid-SURE. “It provided a positive and engaging environment to share my work on the project as well as develop my professional skills,” said Castillo, adding, “I left the day feeling inspired and excited to keep working on a topic that is not only important me, but relevant and meaningful to many others.”
With attendees and presenters from many institutions and disciplines, Mid-SURE provided an opportunity to share research and network with a wide variety of individuals. “Many people were excited to learn about the PEIs and the potential to help lots of patients with treatment resistant depression,” said Cortright. “I learned that many people were interested in other segments of our project, and were anticipating the further research and results. I also learned that many people had no idea that PEIs even existed, and were extremely interested in the psychiatrist perspective on these therapies.”
“By sharing the research findings, I learned how different backgrounds can influence how data is interpreted across different disciplines,” said Castillo. “For example, I had an interesting conversation with a chemist who was curious about how the use of magnets or electrical stimulation can alter the chemical balance of the brain and how that relates to invasiveness. I thought this was an interesting question and enjoyed learning about how he interpreted the data coming from a chemistry background.”
Castillo continued: “My interactions with the other students and professors sparked great conversations about the stigma surrounding PEIs and mental illness. It reminded me how critical this research is in educating the public and informing future guidelines and policies surrounding these treatments.”
As the second year of the project approaches, Cortright and Castillo look forward to continuing the research and analysis. “I’m looking forward to looking deeper into the other neuroethical considerations and understanding how these topics vary between psychiatrists, patients, and the general public,” shared Castillo.
Please visit the project webpage to learn more about the NIH BRAIN Initiative grant “Is the Treatment Perceived to be Worse than the Disease?: Ethical Concerns and Attitudes towards Psychiatric Electroceutical Interventions,” led by Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera.
Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera is co-author of an article in the August 2019 issue of World Neurosurgery. In “Perspectives on the Earlier Use of Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson Disease from a Qualitative Study of U.S. Clinicians,” authors Dr. Cabrera, Dr. Harini Sarva (Weill Cornell Medical College), and Dr. Christos Sidiropoulos (Michigan State University Department of Neurology & Ophthalmology) share the results of Michigan-based clinician interviews about the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy in people with Parkinson’s disease. They conclude that there is a wide variation in clinicians’ parameters for when they suggest DBS as a treatment option for their patients.
The full text is available online via Science Direct (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).
Reported in the New York Times and other media outlets, the study by Zvonimir Vrselja and colleagues used a preservative solution and other ingredients to mimic blood flow in the disembodied brains of four pigs (presumed dead), beginning four hours after the pigs had been slaughtered. They discovered that neurons and other brain cells had resumed metabolic activity, and that individual neurons could carry a signal. (For a lay-friendly account, see Reardon 2019.)
This may be a line of research with tremendous potential. At the modest end the range, it could lead to discovering ways to prevent or reduce irreversible brain damage and death, supplementing or improving techniques already in use, such as hypothermia protocols.
But at the other end, it raises the prospect of reanimating parts of the brain that have “died”; or maybe the whole brain itself. Could raising the dead become common-place in another decade—no longer a miracle?
Could the brain dead be raised from the dead?
It might seem the answer to this question is yes. Following the Uniform Laws Commission recommendation, Michigan like all other states allows that death can be declared under two conditions:
An individual who has sustained either of the following is dead:
(a) Irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions.
(b) Irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.
If Vrselja and other researchers eventually develop the ability to reanimate a whole brain, and inside a skull rather than a vat, would this make whole brain death always reversible? At least so long as the rest of the body is functional enough to sustain the brain?
It might seem the answer is “yes.” The reanimated brain would have a full complement of neurons, capable of communicating with one another, and presumably then capable of the consciousness found in any healthy human brain. The functions of the brain would have been restored.
Presuming this is possible, such a prospect raises tremendous challenges to the ethical conduct of research leading up to such an achievement, which is a focus of concern for Farahany and colleagues. We might be creating or experimenting on brains (both human and non-human) capable of consciousness, and perhaps of suffering, but with no means of communicating that to the researchers.
But would the achievement really mean that whole brain death would no longer be an acceptable criterion for death?
I think the answer is no. Whole brain death marks the death of the person, not merely the death of the brain. And it’s the death of the person that matters—to that person, and to those around them.
It will in one sense be “my” brain that has been reanimated, and it will be occupying my body. But it will be “my” brain only in the sense of being causally continuous with my brain when I was still in my senses.
It most certainly will no longer be me. Assume that my brain has in fact died, with all or most of its cells and synapses no longer functioning. On what basis could my consciousness, preferences, memories, and many characteristic failings be recovered? Consciousness is most certainly not located in any specific part of the brain, or any particular type of neuron. It is a global, network phenomenon. With the death of my brain, my network has gone down.
The brain that is recovered may have the capacity to build a network of its own. But it won’t be mine.
Yes, they may be able to revive Porky the Pig’s brain one day. But it won’t be the Porky we know.
Tom Tomlinson, PhD, is a Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, June 6, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.
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Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera and co-authors Dr. Robyn Bluhm and Rachel McKenzie have a new article available online in Neuroethics, “What we (Should) Talk about when we Talk about Deep Brain Stimulation and Personal Identity.” The article resulted from the team’s Science and Society at State funded project on “Psychiatric Interventions: Values and Public Attitudes.”
Abstract: A number of reports have suggested that patients who undergo deep brain stimulation (DBS) may experience changes to their personality or sense of self. These reports have attracted great philosophical interest. This paper surveys the philosophical literature on personal identity and DBS and draws on an emerging empirical literature on the experiences of patients who have undergone this therapy to argue that the existing philosophical discussion of DBS and personal identity frames the problem too narrowly. Much of the discussion by neuroethicists centers on the nature of the threat posed by DBS, asking whether it is best understood as a threat to personal identity, autonomy, agency, or authenticity, or as putting patients at risk of self-estrangement. Our aim in this paper is to use the empirical literature on patients’ experiences post-DBS to open up a broader range of questions – both philosophical and practical, and to suggest that attention to these questions will help to provide better support to patients, both before and after treatment.
The full text is available online via Springer Link (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).
Continue reading below for a list of recent journal articles from Center faculty, including online first publications. MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view these articles.
Recently assigned an issue
Stahl D. Patient reflections on the disenchantment of techno-medicine. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. December 2018;39(6):499-513. Available online November 1, 2018. View full text via Springer Link.
Cabrera LY, Bittlinger M, Lou H, Müller S, Illes J. Reader comments to media reports on psychiatric neurosurgery: past history casts shadows on the future. Acta Neurochirurgica. December 2018;160(12):2501-2507. Available online October 24, 2018. View full text via Springer Link.
Fleck LM. Healthcare Priority-Setting: Chat-Ting Is Not Enough; Comment on “Swiss-CHAT: Citizens Discuss Priorities for Swiss Health Insurance Coverage”. International Journal of Health Policy and Management. October 2018;7(10):961-963. Available online July 28, 2018. View full text via IJHPM.
Zhuang J, Bresnahan M, Zhu Y, Yan X, Bogdan-Lovis E, Goldbort J, Haider S. The impact of coworker support and stigma on breastfeeding after returning to work. Journal of Applied Communication Research. 2018;46(4):491-508. Available online July 19, 2018. View full text via Taylor & Francis Online.
Cabrera LY, Brandt M, McKenzie R, Bluhm R. Comparison of philosophical concerns between professionals and the public regarding two psychiatric treatments. AJOB Empirical Bioethics. Available online November 6, 2018. View full text via Taylor & Francis Online.
Bluhm R, Cabrera LY. It’s Not Just Counting that Counts: a Reply to Gilbert, Viaña, and Ineichen. Neuroethics. Available online October 27, 2018. View full text via Springer Link.
De Vries RG, Ryan KA, Gordon L, Krenz CD, Tomlinson T, Jewell S, Kim SYH. Biobanks and the Moral Concerns of Donors: A Democratic Deliberation. Qualitative Health Research. Available online August 10, 2018. View full text via SAGE Journals.
Cabrera LY, Goudreau J, Sidiropoulos C. Critical appraisal of the recent US FDA approval for earlier DBS intervention. Neurology. 2018. Available online June 13, 2018. View full text via Neurology.
Zhuang J, Bresnahan MJ, Yan X, Zhu Y, Goldbort J, Bogdan-Lovis E. Keep Doing the Good Work: Impact of Coworker and Community Support on Continuation of Breastfeeding. Health Communication. Available online May 17, 2018. View full text via Taylor & Francis Online.
Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera and co-authors Hayden M. K. Boyce, MD, Rachel McKenzie, and Robyn Bluhm, PhD, have an article in the August 2018 issue of Neurosurgical Focus. “Conflicts of interest and industry professional relationships in psychiatric neurosurgery: a comparative literature review” stems from the authors’ Science and Society at State (S3) project, “Psychiatric Interventions: Values and Public Attitudes.”
Abstract: Objective: The research required to establish that psychiatric treatments are effective often depends on collaboration between academic clinical researchers and industry. Some of the goals of clinical practice and those of commercial developers of psychiatric therapies overlap, such as developing safe and effective treatments. However, there might also be incompatible goals; physicians aim to provide the best care they can to their patients, whereas the medical industry ultimately aims to develop therapies that are commercially successful. In some cases, however, clinical research may be aiming both at improved patient care and commercial success. It is in these cases that a conflict of interest (COI) arises. The goal of this study was to identify differences and commonalities regarding COIs between 2 kinds of somatic psychiatric interventions: pharmacological and neurosurgical.
The full text is available online via Journal of Neurosurgery (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).
Center Assistant Professor Dr. Devan Stahl and co-author John Banja (Emory University) have a target article in the current issue of AJOB Neuroscience, titled “The Persisting Problem of Precedent Autonomy Among Persons in a Minimally Conscious State: The Limitations of Philosophical Analysis and Clinical Assessment.”
Abstract: Determining whether it is ethical to withdraw life-sustaining treatments (WOLST) from a patient in the minimally conscious state (MCS) recalls recurring debates in bioethics, including the applicability of precedent autonomy and the usefulness of quality-of-life assessments. This article reviews the new clinical understanding of MCS and the complexities involved in detecting covert awareness in patients. Given the diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty surrounding most MCS determinations, we review the ongoing debates concerning precedent autonomy as they apply to making WOLST determinations for patients in MCS. We also consider the moral obligations clinicians might have to understand an MCS patient’s advance directives, current preferences, and quality of life. We argue that an optimal approach for making WOLST determinations requires weighing patients’ previous wishes against their current circumstances but that even here, factual as well as ethical vagaries and disagreements will be relatively commonplace.
The full text is available online via Taylor & Francis Online (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view these articles).
Should we be worried about the use of direct brain stimulation to improve memory? Well, it depends. If we think of people with treatment refractory memory conditions, or those situations where drugs are not helping the patient, such an approach might seem like the next sensible step. There is reason, however, to remain skeptical that this strategy should be used to improve the memories of people who function within a normal memory spectrum.
The quest to improve memory is hardly new. Throughout time people have engaged in ways to improve their memories, such as eating particular foods, employing mnemonic strategies, or taking certain drugs, but the quest does not end there. A recent New York Times article discussed findings from a direct brain stimulation study (Ezzyat et al., 2018) on the possibility of using brain stimulation to rescue functional networks and improve memory. In that study, 25 patients undergoing intracranial monitoring as part of clinical treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy were additionally recruited with the aim of assessing temporal cortex electrical stimulation on memory-related function.
The prospect of using brain stimulation to improve memory, initially introduced in the 1950s (Bickford et al., 1958) re-emerged in 2008 when a study using hypothalamic continuous deep brain stimulation (aka open-loop DBS) to treat a patient with morbid obesity revealed an increased recollection capacity in that same patient (Hamani et al., 2008). Subsequent studies have attempted to prove that direct brain stimulation is useful for memory improvement. However, the data on open-loop deep brain stimulation currently remains inconclusive.
The approach by Ezzyat and colleagues, wherein neural activity is monitored and decoded during a memory task, suggests an improvement over open-loop approaches. In this treatment modality stimulation is delivered in response to specific neural activity, detecting those times when the brain is unlikely to encode successfully and rescuing network activity to potentially improve overall performance.
In that study stimulation was triggered to respond exclusively to those patterns of neural activity associated with poor encoding, effectively rescuing episodes of poor memory and showing a 15% improvement in subsequent recall. Indeed, those results might sound promising, but this type of memory intervention raises a number of ethical issues.
In a very direct fashion memory is related to the core of who we are. It allows us to build an interpretation of ourselves and our environments, and in so doing gives us orientation in time as well as in our moral life. As surrealist Luis Bunuel put it, “Life without memory is no life at all … Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing …” Equally, memory plays a crucial role in cognition, learning, and performance, and as such it is not a surprise that many people feel particularly drawn to memory improvement strategies. Yet there are salient, concerning issues when directly meddling with the human brain, including those risks associated with deep electrode insertion such as infection, hemorrhage, seizure and hardware complications. One might reasonably question whether a 15% memory improvement is worth such high stakes risks?
Another concern is the potential for undesirable – but as yet undetermined – side effects. Those uncertainties are why it seems unlikely that such an approach will be used in healthy individuals or for mild memory dysfunction cases. Still and yet, closed-loop deep brain stimulation has alternative utility. It can be used to improve understanding about the specific brain target most centrally related to certain memory functions, and then use that information to employ less invasive interventions, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
The sorts of studies engaged by Ezzyat’s team and others overlook the fact that memories are not just physically located within the cranial cavity. We have external technologies such as photographs, videos, and agendas to help us remember, and so one might reasonably ask if we really need invasive brain implants to achieve the same ends? The brain’s plasticity is equally overlooked, erroneously assuming that the same brain targets will bring equivalent outcomes for healthy individuals as well as for those with memory impairments. Moreover, the identified interventions improve memory encoding, but do not help with the many errors to which memory is perplexingly prone, such as misattribution, suggestibility, and bias. For healthy individuals, addressing those common memory errors could potentially be more helpful than improving encoding with brain stimulation.
In addition, certain types of memory enhancement could bring new perspectives on one’s life, and even affect the ability to understand the past and imagine the future. In fact if we truly were to remember everything we encounter in our lives we might well be overburdened with memories, unable to focus on current experiences and afflicted by persistent memories of those things that we deem unimportant.
Open-loop neural implants already bring a different configuration of human agency and moral responsibility. Closed-loop implants with their ability to both stimulate and continuously monitor neural patterns bring further issues for consideration, such as neurosecurity (e.g. brain hacking) and mental privacy. Improved connectivity of this type of implant further enables the potential for malicious interference by criminals. Concerns about mental privacy figure prominently in other neurotechnologies, which, similar to brain implants, have the ability to access neural data correlated with intentions, thoughts, and behaviors. This enhanced proximity encroaches on the core of who we are as individuals, providing access to mental life that in the past was accessible only to oneself.
Finally, the media hype in itself is problematic. The New York Times’ article mentioned that the 15% improvement observed in the Ezzayt study was a noticeable memory boost. This sort of inflated media coverage does a disservice to the good intentions and professional rigor of scientists and engineers, and misleads the reader to be either overly-optimistic or overly-worried about the reported developments.
With these many considerations in mind, it is clear that direct brain stimulation will replace neither pharmaceuticals nor less invasive memory improvement options anytime soon. Those who crave memory improvement through memory intervention technologies might best be mindful of the aforementioned ethical and social considerations.
Laura Cabrera, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Translational Science & Molecular Medicine at Michigan State University.
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, May 10, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.
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